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Raigarh: It had been 16 days since activist Kanhai Patel had last seen a morsel of food. Hundreds of Adivasi villagers in Kosampali, Chhattisgarh sat in rapt attention in their protest tent, watching every move of the Coal India officials attempting to negotiate a truce with tetra packs of juice in hand, so that the coal mine behind them could begin to operate again, after nearly two weeks of being shut.

This unusual protest, unfolding in the heart of the Mand Raigarh coalfields that hold 3.675 billion tonnes of coal, is a template for all that has and could go wrong with India’s coal regime.

Kosampali and Sarasmal are home to Adivasi communities who have lived here generations, from before the coal ministry’s divide-and-mine designs – by which masses of coal-bearing land were carved up into sellable fractions – came into being. The villages abutting Gare Pelma IV/2&3 coal block have dwellings that are as close as 80-160 metres from burning coal pits and blasting sites. In both villages, protests against South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) – the second highest-producing subsidiary of public sector giant Coal India Limited – and previous mine owners Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) have reached a tipping point.

“Our demands are simple – stop mining on any new land, level your overburden dumps, do the work you’ve promised in your CSR documents, if you’ve mined a farmer’s land, give her compensation and a job at the earliest, or don’t bother restarting the mine, because we don’t give you permission,” said Bhagwati Bhagat, an Adivasi activist who has been at the forefront of the agitation. “We’ve seen the worst with Jindal, we won’t put up with this over and over again.”

Kanhai Patel (R), who was on a hunger strike. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Whose mine is it anyway?

The Gare Pelma IV/2&3 coal block is spread over 968 hectares and holds 246 million tonnes of coal. This block was first allocated in 1998 to Jindal Steel and Power Limited, to produce six million tonnes of coal per annum. In the time that the mine was in its possession, Jindal was quicker than most to start mining and used its captive coal mines to fuel its power plants less than 10 km away. Its dream run of using cheap coal to sell power at exorbitant spot prices was immensely profitable, but didn’t last as long as the company hoped.

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court struck down the allocation of 214 private coal mines, including Gare Pelma IV/2&3, terming the entire process through which coal blocks were handed out to private players arbitrary and illegal. Jindal – the biggest beneficiary of the coal block allocations – was hit hard, but the court’s decision was vindication for local communities in this constitutionally-protected district, where the sale of Adivasi lands to private players is prohibited.

“We felt that finally all the lathi charges we endured, the false cases filed against us were not in vain,” said Shivpal Bhagat, the Adivasi sarpanch of Kosampali, who is still fighting cases filed against him by Jindal, the SECL and the government when he began challenging land grab in the region.

The breather for people like Bhagat was short lived. The Narendra Modi government was quick to enact the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance barely a month after the Supreme Court wiped the slate clean. In 2015, Gare Pelma IV/2&3 was put right back on auction. And despite the Modi government’s much-touted claim of bringing transparency to the coal sector via these auctions, the auction for Gare Pelma IV/2&3 smelled a lot like cartelisation. In a bidding process that lasted for less than an hour and a half (while those for other mines with much less reserves went on for at least five hours and saw a minimum of a 100 bids), Jindal emerged as the only bidder with its hat in the ring in the final round of the auction. Its winning bid of Rs 108 per tonne of coal was the lowest seen in the entire power sector.

“Companies- whether Jindal or SECL- will have to answer to us for the damages caused and promises broken,” say Bhagwati Bhagat and Ramila Rathia, among the five women from Raigarh who won the Chingari Award for their work against corporate crime in December 2016. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Instead of launching a further probe, on March 18, 2015, the central government amended the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Rules, 2014 via a notification, allowing mines meant for auction to be allotted to a central government company in public interest. On March 20, 2015 – in a communiqué that senior Jindal officials described as a “4-line message” – the government of India rejected Jindal’s bids. Three days later, the Ministry of Coal allotted the Gare Pelma IV/2&3 mine to Coal India Limited. On the same day, a smarting Jindal challenged all three moves in the Delhi high court. Noting that litigation would take its time and course, the Delhi high court said that the coal stock that had already been mined “may be disposed off by carrying out a fresh e-auction of the coal mined” from Gare Palma-IV/2&3 and that Coal India could function as the “designated custodian” from April 1 onwards.

Clearances for the mine were swiftly and unquestioningly transferred to SECL on April 16, 2015 by the environment ministry – and mine the SECL did, in its questionable role as a custodian.

Two full years later, on March 9, 2017, the Delhi high court finally concurred with the government’s decision to cancel Jindal’s bids for the Gare Pelma IV/2&3 and Tara coal mines. It gave the government upto six weeks to decide the fate of the latter – whether to re-auction the block or allot it to Coal India or any other public-sector undertaking. However, the court also categorically said that it did not uphold the government’s allotment of the mine to Coal India and said that, “since the allotment of the coal mine was made to Coal India Limited in order to override an emergency situation, it cannot be regarded as a long term allotment.” Not content with the high court quashing its bids, Jindal Power Limited chose to challenge this decision in the Supreme Court of India, where the case lies locked in a stalemate, as of last month. Coal India and SECL have so far failed to file their counter-affidavits, while the Ministry of Coal, the Indian government and Naveen Jindal have been served notice, “but no one has made an appearance on their behalf.”

Children from Kosampali village walk past a sign signalling blasting in the Gare Pelma IV/2&3 mines. Many houses here are less than 200 metres from the mine’s blasting site. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Dodging job-generation liability

“We are being tossed around like a football,” said Patel, visibly weakened. The back-and-forth between Jindal, Coal India and the courts has only brought more confusion on the ground. Each player has been quick to shirk liabilities around land, employment, compensation and pollution, issues that were never considered either by the Supreme Court or the Delhi high court when adjudicating these cases, or by the Modi government, in its rush to resume auctions. ““We had welcomed SECL when they came in after Jindal was thrown out, thinking we’d get permanent jobs and facilities. We used to think of Jindal as Ravan, but the SECL, by that logic, is Kumbhakaran, sticking fingers in their ears every time we ask them for what is due to us,” he said.

The Delhi high court, in allowing Coal India to proceed as the mine’s custodian, had directed the public sector miner to use Jindal’s manpower. Locals allege that far from the permanent jobs they’d expected under the SECL, they’re being short changed even when it comes to contract jobs. “You’ve mined our fields without a hitch, hacked and dumped ash in our forests, and now you want to bring in your contractors and outside labour and tell us that providing a means to survive for two days a week is not your problem? What kind of a government company is this?”

Polluter pays or pays and pollutes?

So far, the only hard-fought relief communities have won is on the grounds of the pollution that is making them short of breath. In a landmark order in April 2017, the National Green Tribunal asked Jindal Power Limited and SECL to pay Rs 5 crore each, as part of a performance guarantee bond for compensating the affected persons and for complying with environmental conditions set out by the Tribunal. In another rare victory, the Tribunal directed that a two-person committee of joint-secretary-level officials – one from the coal ministry and one from the environment ministry – be constituted to look into and issue a report to the Tribunal on issues around serious environmental violations, especially fires raging in the mines. Despite the Tribunal ordering that this committee finish its work by August 31, officials are yet to visit the area or interact with the communities. “Rs 10 crore may not seem like much, but it is important because, for the first time, it attributes liability to both companies,” said writer and filmmaker Rinchin, who has been travelling to Bhopal and arguing the case on behalf of local communities and activists in front of the Bhopal bench of the National Green Tribunal. “The decision to set up this committee is a positive step, and we hope that they look into environmental issues across this severely-polluted region and that the government seriously rethinks the allocation of new mines and industry.”

Failed by local environmental bodies, communities in Kosampali have taken to assessing their own health impacts. In August, an alarming report called Poisoned was released, corroborating local fears around the dangers of exposure to mining and thermal fly ash in the region. The study, conducted by the Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM) and the Dalit Adivasi Mazdoor Sangathan, found that the air, water and soil around Kosampali, Dongamahua, Kodkel, Kunjemura and Regaon villages near the Gare Pelma IV2&3 mine and Jindal’s power plants were severely contaminated with toxic heavy metals, many known to be carcinogenic. Air samples indicated that PM2.5 levels were well above Indian, WHO and US EPA guidelines, along with the presence of heavy metals like manganese, arsenic, nickel and silica. Water samples taken at different locations found alarming levels of manganese, selenium and hexavalent chromium, while cadmium found in the soil was 169 times the amount prescribed by international guidelines.

A 2016 assessment by the regional office of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change found that no concrete efforts had been made to quell mine fires caused by the spontaneous combustion of exposed coal, severely impacting public health. These continue to rage unabated. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Despite its shoddy monitoring in comparison, the regional office of the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board (CECB), in an unusual show of spine, issued a letter to the management of SECL on August 18, asking it to close the mine. The directives were issued after a spot inspection revealed that the miner was violating conditions of consent under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, no filter plant to treat waste water, that it was releasing waste water outside its lease area and that fly ash was not being used to back-fill the mines. It accused the SECL of poor housekeeping and stated that there was “no significant improvement in environmental conditions of coal mine.”

“If there are no numbers, monitoring or qualification of why the waste water is of bad quality, then by what yardstick will it hold the SECL accountable down the line? High and low, poor or good housekeeping – that’s not how science works or talks. This is not what is expected of a regulatory body that has a responsibility towards public health,” said Shweta Narayan of CEM. Indian mining companies are not required to conduct health impact assessments under law and even in severely-polluted areas, no health advisories are issued to citizens.

The CECB’s directive, stern as it was, was surprisingly short lived. On August 24, 2017, the SECL furnished a State Bank of India bank guarantee of Rs 81 lakh, lettered in pencil, promising to clean up its act within six months. “They’ve submitted an action plan for compliance in six months, so we permitted them to mine again,” said R.K. Sharma, regional officer of the CECB. “The closest power plant to the Gare Pelma mine is the Jindal Power Limited plant, so they have to dispose of its ash, the rest they can comply in time.” Interestingly, the Delhi high court in January prohibited Jindal Power Limited from dumping its ash inside the voids of the neighbouring Gare Pelma IV/1 mine allocated to it, even if they were running out of spaces to dump. Jindal has currently appealed to stay this order.

“While the reasons mentioned by the CECB for shutting the mine down correspond with our complaint to the National Green Tribunal, any farmer in this belt will tell you how their harvests are being ruined by fly ash falling on their crops,” said Rinchin. “The health study only confirms this, with nine of 17 soil samples heavily contaminated by escaped fly ash. Why, then, have they let the SECL off the hook so easily and made way for Jindal to dump its toxic ash here again?”

Snatching justice, one strike at a time

Even after the CECB lifted its temporary closure order, the mine remained shut till September 5, courtesy the strike. Pushed to a corner, with production losses mounting every day, the SECL finally yielded on September 6, promising workers at least 100 contract jobs and to revise the dearness allowance in compliance with the recommendations of a High-Powered Committee made in April this year. The sub-divisional magistrate assured villagers that their cases of land grab against Jindal will be filed under Section 170-B of the Chhattisgarh Land Revenue Code; so far seven notices have been issued and 17 cases filed, 28 more are still to be filed. SECL officials also promised locals that they would not mine on new lands and would brief the coal ministry on the complex situation on the ground.

“We are only custodians, how can we promise rehabilitation and full-time employment for lands acquired by the previous miner?” said R.K. Jha, manager of mines, SECL, on the phone on September 6 evening. Responding to allegations of pollution, he said that the mine had been operating with all clearances and they had all the required consent. “There is no question of pollution, we are complying with ISO standards on air and water pollution upto 100%. Whatever violations existed were because of the previous miner,” he said.

The strikers refused the juice and chose to break their fast with coconut water that they chipped in to buy. The mood on ground is one of relief, but with a healthy dose of skepticism – they know the battle is far from over. “For two years, we’ve been promised different things by every different authority – be it the collector, the Supreme Court or the companies – while we’ve protested in the rains, stopped the mining with our bodies. Instead the SECL even uprooted the award we got from Bhopal gas victims that we installed at the mine site,” said Uttara Rathia.

She walks down the deserted haul road, pointing to a ring of fire from the exposed coal. The red hazard lights of Jindal’s smokestacks blink in the distance. “They keep saying sarkari, sarkari (state-owned), but in the last two weeks, this sarkari company has only now reached here to see what we’re fighting for. When it comes to treating us mool-nivasis (original inhabitants) of this land, there is no difference between a Jindal or a Coal India. Everyone who comes here is only here to loot and pollute. But we will fight to see they keep their promises.”

Aruna Chandrasekar

About Aruna Chandrasekar

Aruna Chandrasekhar is an independent researcher and journalist, working on environmental issues, indigenous rights, and corporate accountability in India for the last six years.